In theaters.

When traditional hand-drawn animation studios suffer, commentators often point to Pixar, the shining jewel of American animation, for an explanation. “See?” they say. “The future is in computer animation. Like Pixar.”

That assessment breaks my heart. How can someone look at Toy Story or Finding Nemo or The Incredibles and determine that they owe their superiority to the use of pixels rather than brush strokes? Of course the animation is visually striking, even groundbreaking, but that’s not what makes those movies worth treasuring. Pixar is special not because they use computers or even because they use those computers well. Pixar is special because the people who work there are great storytellers. It really is that simple.

The studio’s latest, Ratatouille, lives up to the Pixar standard with charm, gentle humor, and a love letter to the enduring joy of cooking. The hero is Remy, a bright young rat with an unusually discriminating palate and a gift for cooking. His family doesn’t understand him, but Remy happens upon a hapless kid, Linguini, who desperately needs to shine in the kitchen of a once-great restaurant in Paris. Linguini couldn’t boil an egg, and Remy, as a rat, is unlikely to be welcomed by restaurant staff, but as a covert team, they become a culinary sensation.

The underlying story here is a simple one—an outsider strives for respect and acceptance in a hostile world—but like all Pixar movies, Ratatouille finds sensitive, thoughtful, occasionally provocative ways to tell the tale. For example, Remy doesn’t simply like to eat; he has the soul of an artist, and the scene in which he tries to explain the sensuous delights of a rare mushroom or a bit of aged cheese or—better yet—both together is a striking testament to the wonder of aesthetic pleasure.

The film also takes seriously Remy’s struggle to find a balance between remaining part of his loving clan and striking out alone to pursue his own dreams. It doesn’t cheat either: Remy’s dad is gruff but affectionate, and his concerns about Remy’s safety in the human world are valid. So the inevitable father-and-son reconciliation earns its emotional impact, however predestined it might be.

Ratatouille finds nuance, too, in that most menacing of villains, the critic (given voice here by the incomparable Peter O’Toole). The critic’s final monologue explores the cruel but undeniable pleasure of the negative review—fun to write and fun to read—with eloquence and delicacy, and so a moment that could have been bitter or, conversely, too transformative instead makes a graceful point about human nature.

(Parenthetically, one of the unexpected consequences of blogging for my own enjoyment about movies and concerts that I choose to see has been a relative dearth of negative reviews, and frankly, that bothers me sometimes. It is fun to write with claws out, but naturally I tend to go see something because I’m interested in it and expect to like it. Sometimes I’m not-so-pleasantly surprised—the acclaim for Spring Awakening, for one, still mystifies me—but I usually have no need for venom. I’ve actually considered going to events that I don’t expect to like, just to shake things up, but with limited time and money, that seems foolish, not to mention mean-spirited. So for the time being, at least, Much Review About Nothing will continue to be a rather upbeat, positive place—perhaps to the confusion of people who’ve always considered me hypercritical.)

Anyway, now that I’ve confessed my fear of not being nasty enough, let me get back to this sweet movie, which definitely provides more reason to love Brad Bird, the wonderful writer-director behind The Incredibles and The Iron Giant, both of which move me to tears. (I really am going soft. Damn, I need to find something to bitch about.) Ratatouille features great characters, witty dialogue, and absolutely spellbinding filmmaking. The culinary scenes are mouth-wateringly sumptuous, and some of the intricately choreographed “action” sequences, such as Remy’s escape from an old woman with a shotgun, put testosterone-soaked live action movies to shame.

One of the things I particularly love about the animation is that the filmmakers don’t try to make the human beings or rats look “realistic.” They embrace the exaggeration and stylization their medium offers and create richly detailed, expressive characters. The voice acting is superb, as well. Too often, animation studios cast stars off the pages of Us Weekly, people who don’t know who to deliver a purely auditory performance, but Ratatouille employs a cast of talented character actors who create distinct individuals to match the vivid images.

The sheer ambition of Ratatouille dazzles me. Too many “family” movies roll out with cheap gags and lame pop-culture references that are dated before they even hit theaters—schlock that no one will remember in a year’s time, much less a decade. Pixar aims so much higher than that. Smart and witty and gentle, the Pixar films aspire to be classics, and even those that fall short of true greatness are engagingly good, in every sense. Time will tell whether Ratatouille makes it into the pantheon, but with its enchanting characters and delicious storytelling, it’s a treasure no matter how you draw it.

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